Presented by Western Digital

Big data, machine learning and explosive new innovations in AI like large language models are changing the world — but some of that impact is on the environment. Tech has a cost, measured in the exponential rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. According to the UN, almost 3% of global emissions comes from the tech sector, and that figure will grow as the digital revolution continues apace.

The organizations that are an essential part of this technology boom are being asked to step up to evaluate the impact of their work on the environment, rethink their operations, and promote greener practices to improve sustainability and mitigate the damage before time runs out.

“From both a general material resources perspective and an energy and emissions perspective, there is an environmental price for technology,” says Joshua Parker, Senior Director of Corporate Sustainability at Western Digital. “Finding ingenious ways to facilitate the growth of innovation while reducing the impact of tech is a uniquely challenging proposition. But tech leaders are especially well-positioned to tackle the issue, because it’s their job to solve problems creatively.”

Following the data: The bottom-line benefits of sustainability

Making sustainability a core company strategy requires empowering employees to find sustainability opportunities in whatever role or scope they have, across departments, and this has a direct impact on employee engagement, attraction and retention. In fact, purpose-driven organizations report 40% higher retention rates than other companies.

It can also bump stock price and investor interest in your company, especially if you become recognized as a leader in sustainability. And there’s customer satisfaction at stake too.

“We’ve seen a significant positive impact on our relationship with customers, especially those who have asked us to commit to sustainability,” Parker says. “It’s probably the easiest way to demonstrate a direct connection between sustainability and the bottom line at the company — showing that connection to customer interest.”

But he warns that even if your heart’s in the right place, you have to make sure that you’re being careful and methodical about your approach, so that your efforts are tied to real impacts, and those real impacts are tied to business benefits. Otherwise, you could lose credibility, and it’s increasingly difficult to get people on board both internally and externally should that happen.

“The most important thing to do is follow the data, and make sure that you’re doing your research to figure out what your unique company should do in order to become more sustainable, and that will tend to support the company’s long-term success,” he says. “Maybe in the short term you see the investments and the costs, and you may worry about pulling money away from R&D or other projects. But the long-term benefits, if your program is well-designed, are very clear and far-reaching at the company.”

Beyond efficiency and performance: Adding sustainability to KPIs

The main opportunity for a tech company focused on reducing its carbon footprint is educating engineers on sustainability priorities so they can build in a focus on greener technology right from the start. In part, that’s sharing knowledge across global locations to identify new opportunities, as well as setting goals and determining how to measure progress, so that engineers can add sustainability to their list of KPIs, and the goals they’re trying to solve for.

“In the past they’ve solved for speed and efficiency and cost and performance and numerous other factors,” Parker explains. “If you add sustainability metrics in there, then they can add that to their analysis and come up with innovative solutions.”

For instance, as part of their waste management and consumption goals, the company redesigned its retail packaging to reduce blister paper usage by 276,000 kg annually.

“Designing products that use fewer materials over the long term is a huge, wide open area for innovation, from using recycled content in packaging and products, harvesting and reusing components from products, designing products to last longer, or that can be easily upgraded or repaired rather than discarded,” he says “All of those issues are significant. And while they’re not easy to solve, they have a lot of potential as industry breakthroughs, because they haven’t historically been serious focuses for companies in the tech sector.”

Identifying sustainability targets

Materiality assessments for sustainability are crucial to inform sustainability programs. A mature sustainability program requires current information from stakeholders, including customers, employees, shareholders, the public, civil society groups and more to help understand where priorities should lie. It should focus not just on the impact on the company, but also the impact a sustainability program has on the world.

“For us it’s been very clear and very consistent, ever since we started our materiality assessments, that climate and energy is at the top of the list, both because it’s more urgent than other topics, but also because it’s more impactful and more important right now,” Parker says. “That’s a consistent message we get from all of our stakeholders. We need to mitigate our emissions impacts.”

In response, Western Digital recently committed to 100% renewable energy, reducing water withdrawals by 20% and diverting more than 95% of operational waste from landfills by 2030, as well as hitting net zero emissions in operations (Scope 1 and 2 emissions) by 2032.

Other urgent priorities are resource conservation and human rights, he adds. But the final sustainability strategy depends on what the company looks like, what they do, what their impacts are, what specific targets they ought to set in order to try to mitigate impacts and operate sustainably.

Tracking progress and hitting targets: trust is a non-negotiable

Most companies with mature sustainability programs are in a constant state of re-evaluation, Parker says, constantly tracking progress against existing targets and determining when to level up.

“For companies that are really committed to sustainability and differentiating themselves based on that sustainability, you always look for opportunities to further enhance your sustainability measures, because you want to be a leader in the industry,” he says.

But there are some risks associated with target-setting: historically many companies have set targets without knowing how they’re going to achieve them, sometimes chasing the immediate PR benefit that ambitious sustainability targets can bring — especially if stakeholders care about sustainability. But companies are increasingly seeing that if they don’t meet those targets, or are required to revise them, or their data isn’t trustworthy, they immediately lose credibility and public trust. It’s especially critical to choose wisely now, with new government regulations anticipated, as well as ramped-up scrutiny around sustainability claims.

“You have to be careful about the data that you report, your claims and your commitments,” he explains. “Make sure that when you publish something, whether it’s a claim or a commitment, that it is accurate, that you can stand behind it, and that you will achieve it. Ultimately sustainability is all about developing trust that the company is doing good, and actively working to preserve the environment, preserve communities and support people. The moment that you lose trust, the company loses value, and that’s hard to bounce back from.”

To learn more about Western Digital’s sustainability program, see here.

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